Human Services Minister Michael Keenan may be spruiking the use of external contractors to cut Centrelink call wait times, but Centrelink staff claim that private call workers are giving welfare recipients the wrong information.
In a recently delivered ‘secret’ report, Mr Keenan boasted that Human Services Department phone wait times and engaged signals were dropping and said Labor’s claims of external contractors being expensive were unfounded.
“They answered more calls each day, had less down time between calls, were cost effective and ranked equally for customer satisfaction,” said Mr Keenan.
“This dispels many of the myths perpetuated by Labor that outsourcing leads to higher costs and reduced standards of service.”
Mr Keenan also claims that complaints about external contractors are fewer than those made about internal staff, and that contractors answer more calls, and take less down time and fewer sick days than public servants.
But Centrelink officials say private operators are giving out the wrong information to clients, meaning simple problems may take weeks and multiple calls before they are resolved. They also claim that contractors mostly end up handing calls over to public servants to resolve problems.
“They’re transferring everything from simple change of address queries right up to the most complex cases,” said Community and Public Sector Union deputy secretary Melissa Donnelly.
“It’s telling that the Government is providing no data on how many calls these private call centres actually resolve.”
Centrelink officials say that while call wait times may have reduced, contractors were making errors because they are unfamiliar with, and found it difficult to interpret, welfare policy and rules.
“It’s not a good model to deliver correct, accurate and timely services,” said one official.
“There’s a lot of Human Services staff who are responsible for fixing a lot of the problems.”
In addition to the existing number of private contractors currently taking calls, the Coalition promised an extra 1000 contractors in April at a cost of at least $200 million, and an additional 1500 in August, bringing the total to 2750 – all while shedding its own internal staff.
The Coalition may claim that contractors are cost-effective, but the cost of the department having up to 50 internal, mid-ranking staff supporting the contractors, and the financial and emotional cost to welfare recipients are not considered in the report.
Department staff repeatedly fly across the country to support private call centres, and repeated phone calls from clients receiving incorrect advice also adds to government spending, officials say.
“There’s a lot of hidden costs they are not being open and honest about,” said Centrelink officials.
“It’s people’s lives we’re talking about.”
Understandably, Mr Keenan’s praise for contractors has also demoralised many of his department’s staff, an official said.
The secret report is being treated with scepticism until the Government releases the findings.
“Paid consultants reviewed Centrelink contractors and found that Centrelink contractors were okay,” said Labor’s human services spokesman, Ed Husic.
“Now they won’t release the report so we can see if the claims stack up in reality. If the Government is fair dinkum, they’ll release the report.
“The Government is playing with the figures in an attempt to mask the reality again. They have chopped and changed how they measure phone calls to try to make it look like phone call numbers have dropped; people aren’t buying it.”
However, the Government appears to be ignoring the criticism.
“The fact is our service delivery partners are making a very positive contribution towards reducing wait times and busy signals and improving outcomes for customers,” said Department spokesman Hank Jongen.
Have you noticed reduced call wait times? When you last called, were your problems swiftly resolved?